By John Bell
Consider this question: If you were not afraid, what would you do for the healing of the world? The intertwined crises of ever-deepening climate catastrophe, persistent racism, assaults on democracy, an unjust economic system, and a splintered society cannot be addressed with passivity, resignation, numbness, or wishful thinking. Although we associate warriors with violence and war, we need spiritual warriors fighting for liberation from suffering and for planetary well-being.
Excellent warriors train for years; they value discipline, precision, fearlessness, and compassion. They cultivate calmness, develop enormous trust in themselves, and act with confidence and efficiency of effort. True warriors are willing to be vulnerable to express softness as well as fierceness, to be tender, open, unarmored while also being direct, alert, and firm. Spiritual warriors have no doubt about their basic goodness, their inherent worthiness. They are always practicing to be present. This training allows them to not shrink in the face of their opponent or suffering; they can look squarely at fear and powerlessness.
We all have a warrior in us, and very few of us tap into that warrior power. How can we free that inner warrior?
The Pervasive Conditioning to Feel Powerless
I would like to put a spotlight on feelings of powerlessness, because those feelings interfere with our willingness to act on our aspiration for a better world. And those feelings of despair, fear, or powerlessness that arise about climate change, or racism, or poverty were there long before we knew anything about such things.
When we were children, we experienced so much that was wrong, things were way beyond our power to change. We were small and powerless. So, we internalized those feelings of being too small and powerless to make a difference. Unhealed, we carry these feelings with us into adulthood and project them onto the big social issues of the day.
Bill McKibben of 350.org puts it this way:"The crisis seems so big, and we seem so small, that it’s hard to imagine that we can make a difference."
How did we learn to feel powerless?
In my own life, a few things stand out. You will have your own list.
An early and deep lesson in powerlessness happened when I was a toddler. I was crying for my mother. Although she was a generally loving person, she followed the ideology of the day and placed me in a crib in a room by myself to cry it out. I cried and cried. She never came. Finally, I gave up. Defeated. Powerless.
As I grew older, I witnessed so many things that I knew were wrong but couldn’t stop because I was too small. I couldn’t stop my father from drinking or heal the hurt that made him drink. I couldn’t stop the parents next door from beating their kids. I couldn’t stop the bigger neighborhood boys from pulling the legs off insects. I couldn’t stop the Catholic nuns in my grade school from making us children feel full of sin. I couldn’t say how scared and confused I was when we had to get under our desks to practice for an air raid attack. In my later teen years, in the 1960s, I watched helplessly on TV as Black people were beaten by police and felt numb seeing raw footage of the violence in Vietnam. And on and on.
Seeing wrong things and not being able to stop them because we were little is a fairly universal human experience. The truth is that every human baby--innocent, pure, beautiful, sacred--is born into a traumatized world full of suffering and oppression, even in the best of situations. Fairly quickly, we adapt. And then, racism, sexism, classism, and adultism pile on to tell most of us that we are not good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough. Few people survive childhood and adolescence with their full self-confidence, power, and fearlessness intact.
We may feel powerless, but we are not powerless.
Of course, there are actual forces, policies, laws, structures, culture, and state power that reinforce feelings of powerlessness. And many of us have experienced or witnessed the use of power to crush resistance movements, to silence, jail, or even kill individuals who stood up to injustice. But the reality is that collectively people have tremendous power. If factory workers walked off the job, if students refused to go to school, if information workers blocked electronic communication, if consumers boycotted products, if truckers stopped hauling freight, if bank clerks stopped processing money exchanges, then the whole social system would come to a halt. The people have tremendous collective power.
Feelings of powerlessness limit our warrior nature.
The conditioning to feel powerless keeps most of us feeling small, going along to get along, not questioning authority, settling for comfort, entertainment, and distraction. Conversely, this sense of powerlessness can make us complain, blame, criticize others, and otherwise act out our discontent. This is not the way of a warrior. If we can transform our feelings of powerlessness to release our greater agency, confidence, and ability to make a difference, what might we accomplish? And how might we do it? .
Practices to transform feelings of powerlessness.
I would like to describe some practices that have helped me heal feelings of powerlessness.
Cultivating wise view By view, I mean the story that I tell or we tell about who we are. Is the story that we are greedy, competitive, and individualistic? Is it that we are inherently wholesome and altruistic? Did God confer on us dominion over nature to use the earth as we please or are we inseparable from nature and asked to live in cooperative respect with the earth? The story we tell influences how we think, speak, and act. We each have views, and they are worth exploring to see how they shape us. If the story is that we are inherently good, can we see our opponents as good people who have had bad experiences that have shaped their views? Can we treat them as fellow humans even as we work to end their harmful ways?
Commitment to transform my feelings of powerlessness. Another practice is to make a commitment to not believe my feelings of powerlessness. I need to summon courage to recognize, examine, and feel the old feelings in order to transform them.
Whenever I think, “I can’t do it,” or “It’s too much for me,” or “I’m not smart enough (or strong, or brave, or powerful enough),” I can challenge such self-limiting thoughts with a counter thought: “I can do it,” or “This is not too much for me to handle,” or “Let me at it!” Sometimes I’ve used this image to counteract fear: “Where does a 900-pound grizzly bear sleep? Anywhere she wants!”
“I’m obviously completely incompetent.” Sometimes I use a lighthearted approach that I learned from an early teacher of mine. If I were thinking of some unnerving challenge ahead of me, he would ask me to repeat after him: “I am obviously completely incompetent, and totally inadequate, to handle the challenges that reality places before me. However, fortunately or unfortunately, I am the best person available for the job!”
“This is my home.” Whenever I find myself feeling better than, inferior to, critical of, disdainful of, hateful toward, threatened by, scared by, powerless in relation to another person or a group of people, I can be sure that I’m caught in a reactive habit that separates me. This is not my fault. The conditioning is relentless. These habits of separation in our individualistic society keep us divided from each other and weaken our efforts to mobilize greater solidarity in challenging injustice.
For example, once I was in an airport between flights.I found myself making up stories about other passengers, and they were not flattering stories. I said to myself, “John, what are you doing! You know nothing about these people! Stop!” So, I devised a phrase that I’ve used many times since when I am in a public space like an airport, a supermarket, or a subway. I look around and say, “This is my home, and these are my people.” When I do this, immediately my attitude shifts. Judgment gives way to curiosity and tenderness toward them.
Complaining, blaming, criticizing When I find myself complaining, blaming, or criticizing, I can be sure that I am expressing powerlessness, a feeling that I can’t change the situation. To help get out of that trap, I’ve made a commitment to propose solutions rather than complain; to ask a person whose view I don’t agree with to tell me what brought them to their view; to refrain from demonizing anyone or any group, but to assume they suffer and wish to be happy, just like me, and that we have more in common than in conflict.
Explore the roots. These kinds of thoughts and practices are steps in the right direction. But to loosen the grip of powerlessness, we need to explore the roots in safe settings. In my experience, I’ve needed to recall early messages and incidents that made me feel powerless, maybe replay the incident with an ally, so that I don’t feel alone in facing the feelings that I had when an event originally happened. I have had to allow myself space to cry, to tremble with fear, to feel anger arise, and to laugh. We often think that we need a therapist to help us with these feelings, and we might. But we might also get together with a friend or ally to exchange “listening time” to help each other peel off the old feelings of powerlessness.
Deep listening partner. When was the last time you felt truly listened to? When did you last truly listen to another person? In the safety of a protected space, you might be able to explore and release experiences that laid in feelings of powerlessness. Personally, the most direct and profound practice for transforming my internalized feelings of powerlessness has been through weekly co-listening sessions with a friend over the past nearly 40 years. I listen to him for 45 minutes, then he listens to me for 45 minutes. No advice, no trying to fix each other. We offer each other our undivided, respectful, warm attention. These listening sessions have helped me uncover my innate capacity to care, to think clearly, and to act more fearlessly, which has allowed me to be more effective in social change work.
You can develop a deep listening partnership for yourself. Ask a friend, a trusted practitioner, a partner. Use equal time turns of whatever length you both decide on. It usually works to start out with short times, because few of us are used to truly listening or being listened to. Take turns. The listener listens with undivided attention, not offering advice or comment, just offering presence. The speaker decides what they wish to share but agrees not to use the time to criticize the listener because this usually makes it hard for the listener to keep listening! Both the speaker and the listener try their best to accept and encourage the release of feelings such as tears, shaking, anger, and laughter. You didn’t acquire your feelings of powerlessness in a day, and you won’t get rid of them in one listening session, but a sustained practice can help enormously.
Summary of practices. To review briefly, here are ways that have helped me transform my feelings of powerlessness.
- Always keep my wholeness in mind, and the wholeness of others.
- Learn to recognize feelings of powerlessness, and then act in direct opposition to the powerless feeling, despite how scared I feel.
- Loosen the grip of early experiences of powerlessness through emotional release.
- Heal from internalized oppression that told me I was not sufficient.
- Learn about those who acted in the face of tremendous odds and succeeded, especially those who stood up against injustice.
- Notice and counteract feelings of being separate from others when they arise. “This is my home and these are my people.”
- Cultivate the awareness that I am not alone, and don’t have to do it alone.
- Tackle challenges as if I were the best person for the job, no matter my feelings to the contrary.
- Notice and appreciate myself every time I refuse to act on my feelings of powerlessness.
Free from our feelings of powerlessness, just imagine what we could do for the healing of the world!
John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher.. He is a founding staff and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning, earning, and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. His blog is www.beginwithin.info and email is [email protected]. His latest book (forthcoming from Parallax Press, February 2024) is “Unbroken Wholeness: Six Pathways to the Beloved Community.” This article is excerpted and adapted from his latest book (forthcoming from Parallax Press, February 2024).
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